Notorious Mrs. Clem by Wendy Gamber: Book Review
Betrayed by her boots
When she pulled the trigger, the last thing Nancy Clem thought about was her boots. In 1868, she and an accomplice murdered Jacob and Nancy Jane Young in a riverside park northwest of Indianapolis. They’d owed the couple money, and she decided murder was the best way to solve the problem. But the “notorious Mrs. Clem” left behind a footprint. That’s what led to her arrest in one of the nation’s most celebrated murder cases until Lizzie Borden swung up her ax in 1892.
A young cowherd found the bodies the next day. Jacob Young had most of his face blown off by a shotgun. Nancy Jane Young had been shot in the temple by a pistol at close range. Something – possibly the gunpowder – caught her crinoline on fire. Her body was still smoking when the cowherd found them. The flesh of her thighs had been burnt off, her bones pulverized, and her intestines spilled out of her charred skin. “Burned to the crisp,” wrote one Indianapolis newspaper.
The Hoosier murder that shocked the nation
The police originally surmised it was a murder-suicide. But a small woman’s footprint and a shotgun purchased the previous day and left at the scene led them to the “notorious Mrs. Clem” (as the papers dubbed her) and her accomplice, William J. Abrams.
The case wrote history. The public was shocked that a woman could commit such a murder. A future U.S. President – Benjamin Harrison – cut his prosecutorial teeth on the case. The notorious Mrs. Clem was his first major trial. The case also showcases the first known use of the financial swindle known as the Ponzi scheme. That was the motive for the murder. But what most shifted the tectonic plates of history was that the case put women’s right to work on trial. In a new book by Indiana University history professor Wendy Gamber, The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), the author navigates both the murder and the societal tsunami it created.
If you’re looking for a conventional true-crime read, this book may not be for you, because the raw facts of history don’t always neatly fit into a narrative arc. Notorious Mrs. Clem slipped through the fingers of justice. Her first trial resulted in a hung jury. She was convicted of second-degree murder in the second trial, but Mrs. Clem appealed and the Indiana Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial. The third trial resulted in a hung jury and the fourth a first-degree murder conviction. Once again, the Indiana Supreme Court reserved and remanded. By then, six years later, most of the witnesses had left the state and the prosecution gave up. That’s not an emotionally satisfying ending to a true-crime book.
Notorious Mrs. Clem as a societal magnifying glass
But Wendy Gamber’s forte is history, and that’s precisely what she does so well in this book. Gamber uses notorious Mrs. Clem’s trials to dissect 19th-century Hoosier culture and values. Notorious Mrs. Clem became the first person to use the Ponzi scheme to bilk clients of their money, Gamber claims. Mrs. Clem borrowed money from her clients, promising to pay it back at attractive interest rates. But the money she paid back was nothing more than funds obtained from new clients. No Ponzi scheme can go on forever. Her debts to the Youngs forced a breaking point.
Notorious Mrs. Clem’s financial trading shocked not only Hoosiers but the rest of the nation. More than just guilt and innocence went on trial: Mrs. Clem made the public question women’s rights to manage their own businesses and keep their own profits. The trials serve as a magnifying glass to illuminate 19th-century ideas about gender against the backdrop of the emerging women’s rights movement. That’s what makes this case so fascinating.
In fact, you might say that the notorious Mrs. Clem left her footprints on history.
Disclaimer: I received an advanced review copy of The Notorious Mrs. Clem in exchange for an honest review.
What surprises you most about the notorious Mrs. Clem — her willingness to murder or her invention of the Ponzi scheme?